For years of youth ministry, I battled with parents to get them to bring their kids to youth group.
I would lament how parents would religiously send their kids to sports practice but skip church and youth group. As a young youthworker, I just knew these choices would harm the kids’ spiritual health and I questioned the parents’ priorities. I mean, if they really loved Jesus, wouldn’t they send their kid to youth group?
I hate to admit this, but I have become the type of youth ministry parent I always thought was in the wrong.
I have a son in high school and a son in middle school, and it is a struggle to get them to church. If my son has a Wednesday night soccer practice, I take him to practice or he won’t be able to play in the next game. If there is a school project due, we will opt out of youth group in order to get it done. Even more embarrassing to admit, sometimes we just want to stay home and let the boys play video games or watch WWE wrestling instead of battling with them about going to youth group. Now, I work at the church and I want my own children to love Jesus, but my sons don’t want to attend every youth group meeting. They usually make it to church, but not every Sunday. All of this leads to me to wonder, how did I become this parent? What assumptions about parents of youth have I had wrong all along?
Wrong Assumption 1: I Communicated Enough To Parents.
The biggest assumption I used to have about parents of youth is in the area of communication. I used to believe that as a youthworker, I communicated well with parents about what was going on in youth ministry.
Now that I am a parent, I realize that even the best youthworker needs to communicate more.
Even if you spend hours putting together a professional slide show and announce things creatively with your youth group, it is remarkable how little of that information trickles back to parents. To give you an idea, my conversations at pick up usually go something like this:
Me: “How was youth group?”
Me: “What did you do?”
Son: “Played games.”
Me: “Is there anything I need to know?”
Son: “Umm, I don’t think so.”
Now, I know full well that my son did more than play games, but this is the typical amount of information even my best parenting private investigation techniques can uncover.
As a youthworker, it is easy to believe that we have communicated the necessary information if you have told the youth, but parents are likely not receiving the message. A quick post-youth group email to parents with an outline of what youth learned, possibly with discussion questions, and any upcoming deadlines would be really helpful.
In fact, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as over-communicating, especially with today’s hyper-scheduled youth. You first need to know which channels are most effective for reaching parents, and you find that out by asking parents. A monthly newsletter in paper form seems very last century; a bulletin board at the church is obsolete. It could be that an email once a week works for some parents, but I need emails, text reminders, notes in the newsletter, and especially last minute access to the answers on a website or Facebook group. Yes, you’ve told your parents a dozen times about the deadline for a retreat payment. In the hustle and bustle of getting kids to school, sports or other extracurricular practices and projects, grocery shopping, my own work schedule and more, I have forgotten not only the deadline, but also probably misplaced my keys. Finding the keys will be my priority. The easier you can make it for parents to remember information, the more likely it is to get done. As a parent of three school age children, I receive emails daily from teachers, counselors and coaches with newsletter and video attachments. There is a lot of information to remember, give me an easy place to find the information.
Wrong Assumption 2: Parents Know How Their Kids Are Doing Spiritually
Parents long to hear that their kids are turning out okay spiritually. It’s a cliché, but as a parent, I was never given an instruction manual on raising my children. In some circles, I get feedback on how my kids are turning out. For example, report cards and teacher conferences let me know if my kids are succeeding academically. On the sports field, I can see from the sidelines how my kids are doing. I receive feedback in the subtle things like amount of playing time on the field, as well as direct feedback from coaches.
Youth ministry, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. I am happy to have my children involved, but the feedback is minimal. I don’t see what they do in their Sunday school classes or youth group meetings, there are no report cards, the youth worker “coaches” are mostly silent other than letting me know what events are coming up. The thing is, I crave to hear that my kids are doing well spiritually. I know how critically important faith is for getting through life, but I rarely hear anything about how my kids are doing spiritually, and most parents consider the youthworker the expert on this.
Let your parents know you are on their side, and make it a point to notice signs that the kids are turning out okay spiritually. When a youth says a good prayer or offers deep insight, for example, tell their parents. I would love to hear that my kids are learning to love God and love others. Give parents feedback that their children are turning out okay.
Parents of youth need youthworkers to lead the way in equipping them to teach their children about the faith. As a parent, I expect a lot from the experts in my kids’ lives. I expect that their math teachers will teach them math, their soccer coaches will teach them soccer. In both of these examples, I am handing over my child to an expert with the expectation that they will teach my kid well in those areas. I don’t do the teaching or have to be an expert in these fields. It’s not fair and it’s not biblical, but as a parent, it is easy to also drop off my kid at church and expect that the experts there will also teach my kid everything they need to know. This thinking is in line with the rest of how my life seems to work. As a youthworker, the challenge is to overcome this way of thinking through educating parents and working together to empower parents.
Going back to that “no instruction manual” thing, as a parent I have not been equipped to ask my teenage children about their spiritual lives. It would be helpful if our youth ministry offered occasional classes for parents or talk sheets with questions to discuss. Writing this article inspired me to ask my 14-year-old son, “Do you ever pray?” The proceeding conversation was short because with this son conversations are always short, but it was beautiful and right. I would love it if someone at church would teach me how to have these kinds of conversations more often.
Wrong Assumption 3: Parents Know How To Be Involved.
The third false assumption I had about the parents of youth was that they never wanted to volunteer. Reflecting on my own life, I had never volunteered with junior high youth the summer I was 22 and my cousin invited me to be a camp counselor for a week. Besides a background check, my training consisted of about two sentences of advice that have since pulled me through almost two decades of youth ministry:
- All the kids want to know is that they belong.
- Love them, and let them know that God loves them.
As it turns out, parents of youth usually struggle with the exact same insecurities as those junior high students. Parents, especially ones that are new to having children in the youth ministry, are longing to know that they fit in, they are accepted, and they are loved. You can foster this as a youth worker by creating natural relationships for parents with other parents. Consider having more experienced parent mentors team up with new parents.
Ideally, you and parents have the same goal of helping youth grow closer to God and, with this common goal in mind, you can learn the gifts of the parents and put them in place in appropriate volunteer roles.
Like the insecure junior high campers, parents often need instructions on what they can do to participate. If volunteering with the youth group is unfamiliar, it may take a few nudges to encourage parents to step in. Parents often want to know how they fit in, and that they can be involved without stepping on their own children’s territory.
So in hindsight, when I have been most frustrated with parents, it turns out the problem was me. I was not communicating enough, was not providing feedback to them that they needed, and was not investing enough in the training and growth of my volunteers and parents that would have been more than happy to help me. I don’t know that I have solved those problems all the way, but I am getting better all the time.